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In with the Old

Photo by Cynthia Wiggins

The first few times I ate at Chasen’s, as a culture brat weaned on punk rock and California cuisine, I felt so smugly toward the restaurant that, looking back on myself from a distance of 15 years and perhaps 5,000 serious restaurant meals, I can barely suppress a cringe.

The service was creaky, it’s true, some of the vegetables were canned, and the famous chili was fairly indistinguishable from Dennison’s finest. Nancy Reagan still came to the restaurant sometimes, as did the rest of the local Republican aristocracy, and I found it amusing that faded stars like Joel McCrea and Zsa Zsa Gabor occupied the booths where Olympians like S.J. Perelman and W.C. Fields once dined. The place was expensive but deigned to accept no credit cards. In the bright ascendancy of Wolfgang Puck, in a year when it seemed as if Los Angeles cooking bestrode the Earth like a colossus, Chasen’s menu of deviled beef bones, crème Senegalese and profiteroles read like a yellowed document from 1952. It was the dinner you love to hate.

But secretly, I’d had a really good time at Chasen’s. I never bothered to acknowledge the essential kindness of the maitre d’ and captains, who treated me more decently than I deserved and fed me well, seating me where I could see the grand entrances and exits of Betsy Bloomingdale and Jimmy Stewart, making sure I knew about the best food and drink the restaurant had to offer, much of which was not printed on the menu. I still dream about those meals — the eggy caesar salads, the blood-rare hobo steaks, the banana cake, the Flaming Martinis of Love — as if I had eaten them yesterday. (The new "Chasen’s" on Canon has nothing in common with the original but the name.)

How could I have known then that I would mourn Chasen’s more than I do the fashionably avant-garde Max au Triangle, more than 385 North, more even, perhaps, than Trumps, where I ate Brie-and-grape quesadillas and snifters of Calvados as if they were so many Oki Dogs and Cokes? Chasen’s was the closest thing in Hollywood to an immortal institution, and I was sure I would be able to thumb my nose at the place, even as I inhaled its Gibsons and its cheese toast, for pretty much the rest of my life. Institutions aren’t supposed to collapse.

Still, as much as some of us want to believe that, in the impermanent city of Los Angeles, some things still remain as they were, a restaurant may be as mutable an institution as exists in this world — and when a restaurant, against all odds, manages to resist change, we as customers do not. To paraphrase Heraclitus, no man steps into the same restaurant twice. Not even Philippe’s, or the Cadillac Cafe.

This is often literally so: Of the hundred-odd area restaurants listed in a ’50s-era restaurant guide (many of which — Villa Frascati and Don the Beachcomber, Cock & Bull and the Fog Cutters, Stear’s and the Cove, the Derby and Blum’s and Vince & Paul’s — I remember going to as a kid), the only survivors, outside of hotel restaurants, are Lawry’s The Prime Rib — which, perched across the street from its original location, is an actual simulacrum of its former self — and Musso & Frank Grill. Authentic ’50s restaurants designed by such Googie masters as John Lautner and Armet & Davis have been ripped apart and retrofitted with the sort of ersatz chrome and neon you can find in the malt shop in any American mall. The Theme Restaurant at LAX, which was the ultimate in ultramodernity when it opened 30 years ago, is now, as Encounter, revered for its quaintness. Ships which never closes, closed.

Sometimes, though, these places just feel like different restaurants. The Musso’s I saved nickels for as a broke, finnan-haddie-craving college student is different from Musso’s today, if only because I can afford to have a second drink if I want to and I can put the Welsh rarebit on my American Express card. The Tortilla Pete’s I was 86’d from as a shrill-voiced 6-year-old hellion was cruel and exotic; the real Tortilla Pete’s that held down its corner of Inglewood for almost 40 years was stable and bland. The Mon Kee in Chinatown has almost nothing to do with the Mon Kee where I tasted squid for the first time as a 16-year-old — it may have the same menu, the same food and the same chefs that it always did, but this time around I have a pretty good idea of what to expect when I order cuttlefish. But you can bet that I’ll be sad when it’s gone. And despite myself, I’m happy that some of the old ones are still around.

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